On one of the earliest Easter poems
As Easter approaches, we’re going to share some of our favourite Easter-themed poems over the next couple of weeks, in the run-up to Easter Day. First up, a wonderful late medieval poem. ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’: as opening lines go, it’s one of the most arresting. Sometimes alternately titled ‘On the Resurrection of Our Lord’, the poem is a masterpiece of Scottish medieval poetry. The author of this barn-storming opener was the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1465-c. 1530). You can read ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’ (in the original spelling) by following our link, before proceeding to our analysis below.
For the twentieth-century Scottish modernist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, it was William Dunbar, rather than Robert Burns, who stood at the beginning of the great tradition of Scottish literature. He wrote poems for state occasions, such as ‘The Thrissil and the Rois’ (i.e. ‘The Thistle and the Rose’), a Scots poem written to mark the wedding of King James IV of Scotland to Princess Margaret Tudor of England in 1503.
‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’ takes as its theme the Resurrection, and casts Christ as a crusading knight, battling the ‘black dragon’ of Lucifer, the Devil, following the Crucifixion and prior to his Resurrection. William Dunbar’s poem is not only one of the first great Scottish poems but also one of the earliest great Easter poems. Although some of the language is easily decipherable, at other times the gap between our own time and Dunbar’s world of early sixteenth-century Scotland is only too apparent; you can read a modern translation of the poem here.
For instance, Dunbar’s lines using the image of the tiger to convey the monstrous power of evil,
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;
Can be translated into modern English as ‘The old sharp tiger with his teeth ajar / Which has lain in wait for us so long / Hoping to grip us in his strong claws’. Once we’ve discovered the meaning of the words, e.g. ‘clowis’ is ‘claws’, we can return to the original and savour the crunch and the feel of Dunbar’s language, which is medley of powerful sounds, strong consonants and well-placed alliteration: ‘Whilk in a wait’ is rather splendid.
Image: The Opening page of Dunbar’s “The Goldyn Targe” in the Chepman and Myllar Prints, Edinburgh, 1508, via Wikimedia Commons.